[Shout out to my friends Mandolyn Mackenzie, Christen Gall, Brian Sheehan, and Emma Shafer for helping me out with this article.]
What do both “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Fireproof” have in common? Easy. Despite being made for entirely different audiences, they effectively portray the theme of redemption.
Crazy concept for a gritty superhero movie and a Christian film cheese-fest to actually be similar, right?
Arguably, the problem with Christian films is just that: They are Christian films. I’m not writing this to start an all-out agnostic battle against the Christian movie scene. Complaining about something doesn’t solve problems, but suggestions couldn’t hurt. So, after much careful consideration, and critical thinking, here is my two cents: STOP MAKING MOVIES WITH A CHRISTIAN LABEL ON THEM.
Whew, that one took a lot out of me. But, seriously though. Think about it. These films, whether it’s made public on paper or not, are marketed to a Christian audience. In the same way the “Twilight” franchise targets teenage girls, desperate for some affectionate vampire boyfriend, so does something like “Courageous” target Christian families who want a feel-good experience. Now, this isn’t to say that these movies don’t hit hard issues, because they do, including pornography, fatherly absence, drugs, etc., however, I think there is more to be accomplished.
Let’s just take a step back outside of the Christian bubble. The vast majority of people who don’t share the same beliefs that the ‘religious types’ do, scoff and laugh at the cliched plots and infinitely more predictable, positive, yet unrealistic endings. Tons of people will knock the films for their poor acting, but we should all know by now that films with less than favorable performances can still get the nod from the Academy (e.g. Ben Affleck’s lead role in the critically acclaimed “Argo”). So, admit it. For the most part, Christian filmmakers sell short the most important aspect of visual storytelling: story.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. The end result of “Courageous” is wonderful. A congregation of Christian men pledge to join together and be… Well, be Christian men. As an audience, most of us love resolution and a happy ending, but gosh what a contrived and forced way to end a movie. Okay, it works for the church building premiere on Wednesday night, but I don’t, for even a second, believe that was an effective ending for the average moviegoer. If Jesus’ message to his church was to go out into all the nations, then why are we marketing movies to a Christian audience? That sounds sort of counter-productive to the end goal, doesn’t it?
“Okay, Chris. We get it. You don’t like Christian movies. How do you suggest we fix it?”
“So glad you asked,” said Chris, with a sly grin on his lips, and an old pipe in his hand, as he spun around to face the reader in his new office chair.
I mentioned my favorite superhero, Batman, earlier. Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy”, in my opinion, perfectly captures the message of Christianity.
Side Note: I chose Batman because if Bruce Wayne ever gave me a call to fill out an application to be the Caped Crusader, I would drop everything to do it. I digress.
Separate the character of Bruce Wayne and Batman for a moment. Bruce Wayne is obviously an imperfect being with a messed up childhood, but he wants to seek out resolution for the ever-growing problems of crime in Gotham. He chooses Batman. Batman arrives on-screen as the savior of Gotham. At first, people accepted him because he helped them by putting his life on the line. Suddenly, Gotham’s White Knight, Harvey Dent, goes crazy and ends up dead. Batman takes the blame, and now a city full of people hate him, mostly because they don’t understand him. Finally, the Dark Knight is faced with the choice of letting a bomb detonate, which will kill everyone in Gotham, or sacrifice himself for the very people that despise him. Of course, he’s Batman, so without question, he takes the bomb out of the city—in a way only Batman can—and takes on the sins of a broken city that allowed crime to flourish.
End result: Batman dies, so the people can live. Odd. That sounds eerily familiar to something I’ve heard before; cough, cough, Jesus, cough.
There are more obvious examples of Christian themes in film, like last year’s “Les Miserables”. Jean Valjean undergoes extreme life change. Caught in the midst of his thievery, he is offered freedom by a priest, free of any cost, if only he would turn his life around. He goes from petty thief, to a man who lives his life in sacrifice for what is right and good.
So, what am I getting at? You don’t have to brand a movie ‘Christian’ for it to employ themes of unconditional love and forgiveness. I’ve given you two examples of movies that do it extremely well, with the box office, and the Academy in agreement. By not branding those movies as explicitly Christian, they attract and reach a much larger audience. Moviegoers looking for an entertaining night out at the theater are subconsciously exposed to themes and messages that exemplify what a Christian filmmaker is trying to say.
Christian films are not bad. They work. They are okay. But they could be better. Much better. Christian filmmakers, this is a call to strive for excellence and stop excusing the importance of a good, believable story.
I think Jon Foreman of Switchfoot would agree with me.